Where there is a Halachic will for change there is a Halachic way to create this change

February 24, 2021 by Rabbi Gabi Kaltmann
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This week is one of the highlights in the Jewish calendar as we celebrate the joyous festival of Purim. 

The Ark Centre’s Rabbi Gabi Kaltmann

As a child, Purim was always one of my favourite events and I looked forward to it with great anticipation. The hamentashen baking, the mishloach manot packing, the dressing up and of course the “booing” to Haman’s name during the Megilah allowed for some of the best fun as a kid!

However, the Megillah contains some dark themes. In the first chapter alone, Queen Vashti is banished by King Achashverosh for refusing to appear before his banquet while naked. Following Vashti’s execution, King Achashverosh holds a beauty pageant to acquire a new wife and chooses Esther as his queen because of her attractiveness.

While Midrash recounts that Queen Vashti was evil and vicious and that Esther’s selection was Divinely ordained, the straight reading of the Megillah is more disturbing. It presents a dark and sordid story with a pervading culture of sexual misconduct and the objectification of women.

It almost begs the questions: Why is this story even part of our Jewish canon? What are the lessons that can be learned? What is the point of including a story in which women are subject to the whim of manipulative men who use their power to force them into a King’s harem for life and then subject them to domestic abuse and violence?

One of the other main themes of the Megillah is “VeNahapoch Hu”- “and it will completely turn around.” It literally implies that one should expect the unexpected. Things will radically shift and change in an instant.

Nothing about the Purim story is normal or expected. The Jews were not expected to survive. King Achashverosh did not mean to banish his wife Vashti, as shown by his later regretful mourning for her. Esther was not meant to be Queen.

In many ways, the Purim story holds up a black mirror to society and demonstrates a world that one would not want to live in: one where sexual misconduct, exploitation, and the abuse of power is rampant.

The Megillah is, therefore, much deeper than what it appears, as it shows us exactly what kind of society we do not want to become. It shows us what happens when people abuse power and don’t respect women.

In light of this, it is important to note that Taanit Esther (the fast of Esther), which takes place the day before Purim has been designated worldwide as International Agunah Day.

In Jewish history, an Agunah was traditionally a woman who was unable to remarry or divorce when her husband went missing and could not be located. This woman was therefore “chained” to her marriage unsure if he was alive or dead and was unable to move on and find a new husband. These days, more often than not, women that are chained to marriages know exactly where their ex-husbands are, but their vindictive ex-partners refuse to release them from religious marriages through the signing of a Gett. These women, through the coercion and control of their ex-partners are thus continually chained to a marriage they would like to end and are unable to move on with their lives or even remarry under Jewish law.

This situation needs to end.

As an ambassador of Unchain My Heart, an organisation dedicated to ending the Agunah crisis in Australia, I am passionate about the need to find conducive Halachic solutions so that women have agency over their marriages and divorces.

Where there is a Halachic will for change there is a Halachic way to create this change. I am grateful to Unchain My Heart for spearheading the movement for change in Australia in partnership with other international organisations.

I hope that this Purim that we all witness a turning around of the current situation and a complete “VeNahapoch Hu.” For too long have stories like the one in the Megillah served as the norm. For too long have women been chained as Agunot.

Comments

2 Responses to “Where there is a Halachic will for change there is a Halachic way to create this change”
  1. Nadav Prawer says:

    The phrase ‘where there is a halachic will, there is a halachic way’ is one of the more dangerously abused epithets in Jewish discourse. It is taken by many to mean- and is used- as indicating that if the rabbis wanted to find a way to allow something, they would. The corollary suggestion is that there are no unbreakable halachic rules, principles or piskei halacha that are not subject to the will of man.
    For the Orthodox rabbi, this, of course, is anathema. Whilst there may be areas of halachic dispute and flexibility, the proposition that EVERYTHING is halachically ‘flexible’ or subject to fiat determination is untrue. An orthodox Jew believes in torah from God, both oral and written, and consequently that there are mitzvot. This includes divorce.

    Of course, the real meaning of the phrase is somewhat different, at least in the original. The modifier ‘halachic’ to ‘will’ is indicative of the proposition that halacha, within its confines, has creativity and flexibility. A ‘halachic’ will understands, and is limited, by the dictates of judicial authority, which are many.

    It is unfortunate that the article does not clarify this, as it may lead to an unfortunate conflation and understanding of rabinnic responses to agunot as callous or indifferent. Whilst we ALL hope for an end to the agunah (agunot AND agunim) crisis, we should continue to be careful as to how we use language.

  2. Abe Schwarz says:

    It is wonderful to read this compassionate and informed perspective by All Centre’s Rabbi Gabi Kaltmann. If only the PM (who claims to be a man of faith), would call men to account (even those who don’t have a wife to remind them about their daughters!), and learn some of these morals from the Book of Esther as extrapolated by Rabbi Gabi, women may begin to feel safe, in their workplaces, home… and in fact everywhere. Perhaps the self -respect demonstrated by Vashti could be the learning that Australia now needs…

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